5.2 Using political skills
In particular, a project manager needs to employ good political skills in order to maintain the support of senior management, without allowing them to undermine or take over the project. However, this can raise questions about the ethics of their behaviour. Read the following account that was given by a member of an external consulting team working on a project for a local authority in Scotland. The project's objective was to revamp the structure of the council which had operated in much the same style for the past 20 years. A new chief executive had recently been appointed; the leader of the consulting team was a long-standing personal friend of the chief executive.
Example 1: What the chief executive wants
‘We were invited to a meeting with the chief executive to launch the project, agree our liaison mechanisms, find a room to work in, and so on. At the meeting the chief executive produced a seven-page document. This set out what he wanted to see in our final report. Some of this had been in the original brief for the assignment, set out in general terms, and here it was again with some specific recommendations and markers for action concerning parts of the organisation structure and named individuals in specific posts, which were not expected to survive the review. We didn't have as much flexibility as we thought.
‘The project rolled out over that year and our recommendations got firmed up as we collected more information. Basically, this was an autocratically managed, hierarchical, rigid, bureaucratic organisation, with lots of time and money wasted on unnecessary procedures and rule following, and with poor staff morale. So our recommendations were going to be about cutting hierarchy, empowering people, changing the management style, making procedures more flexible, getting decisions taken more quickly, and the chief executive was behind all this.
‘The main client was a subcommittee, to which we reported about every quarter. But not before the chief executive had, at his request, seen an advance copy of the report, commented on it and suggested changes. This put us in an awkward position. We knew his thinking, and so when other managers asked us about that, we had to fudge our answers. This also meant that we had to build our ideas into our reports, finding some rationale for supporting them, which was important because, if questions came up in committee, we would have to explain and defend the point.
‘If we hadn't handled the chief executive in this sort of way, the whole project could have been at risk, and the time and the contributions of a lot of other staff would have been wasted.’
Do you think the consultants' political behaviour was acceptable?
List the points for and against behaving this way.
The points you listed in favour of the consultants’ behaviour may have included that it ensured that the project was a success, that the chief executive was best placed to know what needed to be done, that the consultants got to do what they wanted to do anyway, and that their actions maximised the staff's contributions to the project.
The points you listed against the consultants’ behaviour may have included that the chief executive may have not been well placed to know what action was needed, that he may have been prejudiced against certain individuals in the organisation, that the consultants’ behaviour was dishonest, that it may not have achieved the best possible outcome for the organisation, and that it compromised certain individuals.